Is resurrecting Neandertals unethical?

By Razib Khan | July 17, 2012 9:34 am

An interview with paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer:

This raises one more question: Could we ever clone these extinct people?

Science is moving on so fast. The first bit of Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA was recovered in 1997. No one then could have believed that 10 years later we might have most of the genome. And a few years after that, we’d have whole Denisovan and Neanderthal genomes available. So no one would have thought cloning was a possibility. Now, at least theoretically, if someone had enough money, and I’d say stupidity, to do it, you could cut and paste those Denisovan mutations into a modern human genome, and then implant that into an egg and then grow a Denisovan.

I think it would be completely unethical to do anything like that, but unfortunately someone with enough money, and vanity and arrogance, might attempt it one day. These creatures lived in the past in their own environments, in their own social groups. Bringing isolated individuals back, for our own curiosity or arrogant purposes, would be completely wrong.


I do find it curious that Chris used the term “creatures.” This probably not intentional, or with serious conscious intent, but Neadertals and Denisovans are creatures I think the ethical issues are strongly mitigated. After all, chimpanzees are used in medical experiments. I assume that the woolly mammoth will be the first extinct complex organism which is resurrected. But what if they’re human???

Stalin purportedly wished to create ape-human super-soldiers. What if it is true that Neandertals were, and would be, far stronger on a per unit basis than humans? Can you imagine: “unleash the Neandertal brigade!” More optimistically, what if Neandertals lacked social intelligence, but exhibited very strong aptitudes in the visuo-spatial sciences? Neandertals had average cranial capacities which were larger than modern humans.


Comments (67)

  1. simplicio

    I imagine any country advanced enough to clone Neanderthals would have a military advanced enough where the raw physical strength of its soldiers isn’t that important. So sadly a platoon of Geico cavemen isn’t likely.

    But yea, I’d have mixed feelings about cloning them. On the one hand I’d be curious as hell to see what a different Homo species is like. On the other hand, raising a potentially sentient individual purely for purposes of research does seem rather icky.

    On the other other hand, I’ve known people who’ve had kids for far worse reasons, so I say go for it.

  2. raw physical strength of its soldiers isn’t that important.

    well, navy seals? i think the issue here might be that the technology to clone might not be too difficult/out there in relation to full on complex robotics, which would make strength and endurance irrelevant for soldiers.

  3. I would think that any country with leadership nefarious enough to encourage cloning of anything for the purposes of raising an army would do so with the intent to by and large have the cloned beings replace the countrymen in the fighting ranks. In this respect, if neandertals were indeed stronger, faster, or even in possession of cognitive abilities that gave them in an edge in battle, it would certainly matter–even in light of technology. Sounds foolish, but think about an army of Captain Americas. The psychological aspect of going against some kind of other being–especially a ‘super soldier’–might be enough to cripple the opposing army.

  4. I’m curious as to whether he’d think it’s ethical to clone a member of our own subspecies from ancient DNA. After all, they too were “creatures liv[ing] in the past in their own environments, in their own social groups.”

  5. #4, one thing that i wondered: what if neandertals/denisovans are well within the normal human range on almost all metrics?

  6. After reading this I keep thinking of Clone Wars.

  7. kirk

    The last Denisovan might have been quite happy in a Sapien tent sipping Sapien tea. Could have happened.

  8. Capri

    If they were able to mate with modern humans and produce offspring, they’re human enough. Some scientists think that Neanderthals were just another human ethnic group. Most renderings presume that they were more ape-like. A kid I went to high school with was a dead ringer for the presumed typical Neanderthal look.

    They were creatures and we’re not?

  9. Bobby LaVesh

    I think the answer to whether it is ethical to clone neandertals is no; less ethical than it is ethical to clone modern homo sapiens. At least with modern humans they would be entering a culture that viewed them as equals and not freaks.

    Could a neandertal live a normal life? No, not in our society- and we certainly couldn’t release them into “the wild”- they have no community with which to survive.

    The difference between them and us is minimal. We know we share their DNA- and cross-bred with them- whether they are a subspecies of homo-sapien or a different species they are still “human-enough”. True, mutation to a single gene can make a huge difference- so even one or two genes different they could be physically quite different- but we know culturally they shared a lot of common traits with our “traditional” ancestors- and that makes them “human-enough” to be human.

    A modern homo-sapien cloned could (once the medical hiccups of cloning are solved) live a normal life and blend into society. Mr. Caveman would always be “a freak” with no peers (unless you include Bill O’Reilly) and always a grey area under the law.

    Even if we resurrected a whole tribe of them and stuck them on an island- their culture is long since gone. The old would have taught the young… their customs, their knowledge- long since lost.

    You can’t ethically bring them back. At least not yet… our society is not ready to accept them.

  10. We should be doing this with Nikola Tesla, Einstein, and Isaac Newton (if possible)!

  11. Bobby LaVesh

    I won’t delete my previous comment… but I would like to add a thought I had since I clicked submit 5 mins ago.

    Thinking about it- assuming Mr. Neandertal is “Human”.

    What if modern humanity were to perish by some disease (or other means) and long in the future some other intelligence had the ability to clone us.

    If they had the technology to do so- and meet our needs without causing us undue stress- even if it meant keeping us in some hospitable confinement for our protection… the irrational emotional side of me would hope they would bring our species back. Let us reproduce and establish ourselves again.

    Suspecting Neandertal were just like me, I would think they would want the same. So, perhaps, if we could truly meet their needs- and provide them a stimulating comfortable space- (not a prison- or a lab… but a home, companionship, and a meaning to life) and understand they are emotional- intelligent spaient beings… with their own desires and intelligence… perhaps…

  12. #12, first thought: choose life! 🙂

  13. Finch

    > Could a neandertal live a normal life? No, not in our society- and we certainly couldn’t
    > release them into “the wild”- they have no community with which to survive.

    That’s an empirical question and the answer’s not obvious. I take it you imagine them as slightly smarter apes. Perhaps if you could reliably deduce from their genes and theory that a cloned Neanderthal would be within the normal human range and not, say, aphasic, it would be okay. Separately, I think you would want assurances that the child would be raised in a family and not in a lab. It might be hard to get that.

    I note you (Bobby) added a reply a few minuted after I wrote this addressing some of these issues.

  14. Bobby LaVesh

    #14- Finch, I think of them as human with some physical and perhaps mental differences.

    The fact that they would look different would be enough to mean they could not live safely and seemlessly in our society. No matter how intelligent they are- they would always stand out, always be “the freak”. They would have to live seperate from our society- hopefully in something more than just a lab…

    … for their safety more than ours. I can’t think of many communities where they could live safely. Their life would constantly be threatened in open-society “to protect the children”. I can imagine more than a few religious groups would not tolerate their existance.

    Assuming scientists don’t get clone happy- there wouldn’t be enough of them to provide mutal protection and support in a society of their own…

    … and who knows- maybe they would be a threat to us…

  15. Sid

    I’d imagine that Neanderthals would be extremely susceptible to alcoholism, but they probably wouldn’t need to worry about that, since their immune systems would not be primed for 30,000 years of pathogen evolution and adaptation.

  16. since their immune systems would not be primed for 30,000 years of pathogen evolution and adaptation.

    if we can splice in neandertal segments, wouldn’t be too hard to “keep” modern human immune regions, right?

  17. Paul Rain

    Mike Keesey: Of course that’d be fine- everyone knows all members of Homo sapiens are adaptable to any environment or social group that’s worthy of existence.

  18. Dwight E. Howell

    I see absolutely no reason to think these people were less human than we are and could not acquire the needed social skills since they would start lives as babies on an even level with any new born.

    The real issue is that their immune systems wouldn’t stand a chance. Any time true primitives come in contact with moderns they normally die in large numbers plus our diets would almost certainly cause them to become diabetic and they would be lactose intolerant. A tolerance for alcohol would also most likely be absent.

  19. Esat

    As far as I know, Islam religion says humans are created as is (adam and eve) and they claim we didn’t evolve from a more primitive organism. I’d *like* to see a living proof just for using it as an argument against believers of tales of creation. It could be fun!

  20. Hemo_jr

    Might I refer you to Asimov’s “The Ugly Little Boy” for a thought experiment on this idea.

  21. What’s the general consensus on Neanderthal IQ?

  22. Dallas

    @19. Dwight E. Howell

    I think you’re a bit confused about immunity in this case. Native Americans died from disease en masse after 1492 not because their genetics weren’t adapted to Old World diseases, but because their immune systems were not allowed to adapt to those diseases in their early lives. Immune systems are adaptable within the life span of an organism — that’s what makes them so neat. Thus, any neanderthal raised in a modern environment would adapt to those diseases around it, just like a normal human child.

    Now, there may be genetic differences in their immune system such that they are more susceptible to certain diseases compared to us, but I simply do not know enough to about their genome to comment on that facet. How far outside of modern human variation are they really? Is 30,000 years of their extinction long enough such that they’d be too behind? Maybe, I don’t know. As Razib said in #17 though, this situation would be a quick fix anyways.

    As far as lactose intolerance goes… the majority of modern humans are lactose intolerant (which is a commonly discussed theme on this blog, by the way). And as long as we’re genetically engineering them, we could fix that too, if we cared to, although I don’t really see the point. Would the fact that they couldn’t drink as much milk as their peers be enough to refuse bringing them back? Some of these ‘ethical’ dilemmas seem a bit like fishing to me… (although I do think there is a serious ethical situation to consider here).

  23. #23, there are some issues of immunity which probably aren’t simply due to early exposure (last i checked native americans are kind of depauperate on mhc variability). though your overall point is well taken. i’d still bet that unless we ‘fixed’ some genomic aspects there would be long term morbidity issues, common to non-ag folk. the lactose intolerance comment was pretty funny 😉 lactose intolerant ppl get digestive problems, they don’t explode 🙂

  24. Ed

    Would be pretty cool if there were Neanderthal super soldiers. I think a nation’s interests and sovereignty are better protected by stronger minds (rather than muscles) nowadays however. Developing faster and more sophisticated ballistic missiles and ABMs is what’s really going to bolster a nations military prowess. Once a nation’s a nuclear power, they join sort of a ‘clique of nuclear powers’.

    Also, do you guys think Neanderthals would be as quick and agile as Sapiens? I’d rather be a fast guy with a gun than a big guy with a gun. I would have no problem with resurrecting Neanderthals, I think it would be awesome.

  25. gcochran

    “not because their genetics weren’t adapted to Old World diseases”

    Undoubtedly, they would have developed protective sickle cell trait if they’d just been exposed to malaria from birth. And G6Pd deficiency . etc. Hint: you’re wrong.

  26. minor note: neandertals are sapiens. just not sapiens sapiens 🙂

  27. Karl Zimmerman

    I’m not sure why people think that Neanderthals would stick out like a sore thumb. Yes, their facial type would be fairly unattractive (particularly women) to modern humans, but the more contemporary reconstructions make it clear they were not far enough from the human norm to be in the uncanny valley. Certainly they didn’t have those comical browridges like the Geico cavemen.

  28. “Perhaps if you could reliably deduce from their genes and theory that a cloned Neanderthal would be within the normal human range and not, say, aphasic, it would be okay. ”

    Well, there are aphasic humans already, so that would be within the actual human range. (Where the “normal” human range cuts off at is a little bit subjective.)

  29. #27, there are still people who rank them as a species. And before you bring up the discovery of admixture, consider that coyotes (Canis latrans) and grey wolves (Canis lupus) are nearly always considered different species even though large populations of coyote have some grey wolf ancestry.

    The decision over whether to call them Homo neanderthalensis or Homo sapiens neanderthalensis is more about bookkeeping preference than about science. (For better or for worse, the ICZN is “agnostic” about taxonomic preference.)

  30. muhr

    I wonder how big of a psychological jolt it would be for an anatomically modern human to come into contact with a neandertal compared to say two different modern human populations coming into contact.

    Perhaps labeling the clone as a neandertal would be a big source of the jolt. No doubt when our ancestors came into contact with neandertals they noticed the difference, but I suspect they didn’t see each other as different forms since they bred after all.

    Unless we wanted to produce a whole new neandertal/AMH hybrid they should probably be bred infertile.

  31. muhr

    I mean the neandertals should probably be cloned infertile.

  32. I’ll just point out that the near global tendency is to move away from experiments on chimps that may cause them harm. The possibility of psychological harm to resurrected Denisovans, even if we tried to insure against that, would be swimming against the tide.

    OTOH, there’s also lots of philosophical literature debating the value of turning potential human life into actual life even if actual life might suck. I don’t know enough about it to draw conclusions, but it probably would be useful here for anyone who wants to get serious about this issue.

  33. Daniel GC

    I see a hollywood movie in the works. Thousands of years ago, homo sapiens fought and defeated the neandertals….in the 21st century, man brought them back and now….the rematch between man and neadertal…haha

  34. A Neanderthal child who grew up eating Cheerios, cheeseburgers, pizza and such would possibly have not so much in common with a prehistoric “wild” Neanderthal. The different foods would doubtless cause many subtle changes in his bodily and chemical constitution. So for purposes of bringing these people back to see what they were like in ages past….well, maybe it wouldn’t be so straightforward.

  35. jb

    Cloned animals, at least with current technology, often show genetic abnormalities.

    We’ve been assuming here that any resurrected Neanderthals would be genetically healthy and truly representative of ancient Neanderthals, but it seems possible to me that we would end up producing creatures who looked like Neanderthals, and had many of their characteristics, but were subtly botched and messed up inside. The danger here is that doing a bad job of resurrection might be within our reach, while doing a good job isn’t, but that someone might go for it anyway, just because they can. That I think would be truly immoral!

  36. Karl Zimmerman

    31 –

    Presuming that Neanderthals are self-aware and conscious (e.g., human beings) the idea of purposefully sterilizing them is abhorrent, and goes against basic international human rights laws.

  37. Dallas

    @ #26 gcochran

    I meant for my second paragraph to discuss how genetics effects disease susceptibility in modern humans, but I didn’t think I needed to lecture people on this blog on something so obvious. Your point is absolutely valid though, and I guess, on its own, my comment looks a little too simplistic. Sorry. My intent was to simply counter the idea that raising a Neanderthal would be completely analogous to Europeans meeting Amerindians. Certainly genetics matters, but as I noted in my comment, there’s reason to be skeptical that it would mean certain death for any cloned Neanderthal in the modern world.

  38. David

    While I would love to see this and I’m sure we would learn a lot, it would certainly suck to be the neandrethal herself. She would just want to be a normal kid, but all the time there would always be scientists and reporters looking for clues of her apishness. Every time she threw a tantrum or refused to clean her room, everyone would be like “yup, that’s the neandrethal in her!” If we did this, I would actually hope that plastic surgeons would do some early interventions to make at least her face look more familiar. That would be a kindness to her personally, and it would also be a kind of control that would allow for a more direct comparison between her and homo sapiens sapiens girls. (If she grows up looking “freaky”, we’ll never know what features of her behavior were caused by the fact that she noticed that people thought she looked freaky.)

  39. re: cloning, this is going to be different than cloning. the problem with cloning from what i recall is that the cells are taking from the bodies of organisms which have already aged. this sort of project would involve the splicing together of SNPs at positions where we know neandertals and humans differed, using the reference genome.

  40. also, though i do think it is legit to argue that resurrecting neandertals is not ethical, it is instructive to note that many of the objections being made here (e.g., “oh so ugly!”) can apply to ‘normal’ modern humans. e.g., “that couple be 00glee, they shouldn’t breed and produce 00glee kids….” to me that doesn’t nullify the objection, but it strikes me that these aren’t qualitative issues with neandertals as such.

  41. @ Paul Rain makes a good point: “all members of Homo sapiens are adaptable to any environment or social group”. We would learn very little. I’m reminded of Marge Piercy’s novel *Body of Glass*. At the end, the heroine unexpectedly finds that she has the data she needs to recreate her android lover from scratch. But of course it wouldn’t be him, just a physical copy of him.

  42. Stephen

    Technically, this is farther off than a lot of people think. The early partial failures will be morally gruesome. And with apparent success, what’s an error and what’s not won’t be clear.

  43. Questions of morality about cloning Neanderthals will be mooted at some point, when some private lab simply does it. When staring at a live baby Neanderthal, crawling around in a diaper, nobody will look at the child and say “You shouldn’t exist.” It will happen in my lifetime.

  44. Technically, this is farther off than a lot of people think. The early partial failures will be morally gruesome.

    can you say more?

  45. Syon

    Karl Zimmerman:”Presuming that Neanderthals are self-aware and conscious (e.g., human beings) the idea of purposefully sterilizing them is abhorrent, and goes against basic international human rights laws.”

    It wasn’t so long ago that sterilization of the “unfit” was a respectable component of progressive thought; attitudes regarding basic rights are rather more plastic than people think.


  46. Stephen

    @45 – The cloning in use to date involves using entire intact gametes. These have not only the entire correct primary sequence, but the correct arrangement and number of duplicated genes, including the right number of active and inactive paralogous copies. Plus, the correct packaging of the chromatin to let the genes be accessed in the appropriate order. Early in this thread, folks are imagining editing a human primary sequence to match what we know about the Neanderthal primary sequence. We don’t know enough about Neanderthal paralogous copies to duplicate that, we don’t know how to do such wholesale editing, and we don’t know how to get the edited stuff back in it’s native packaging. — Early cloning efforts went through rampant defects, and miscarriages, and to add a whole genome edit to the front end will be returning to square one in terms of success rates. During early trials, lack of full success means defective births. — The info needed to make a creature is not in the sequence alone, and for the Neanderthal we only know the sequence of the simple, single-copy stuff.

  47. Karl Zimmerman

    Syon –

    I’m aware of the history of sterilization during the “progressive” era, including in the U.S. That said, those days are behind us, and that type of eugenics is viewed with horror by even the majority of genetic determinists today.

    In addition, the logic of the era was stupid regarding these matters, as Darwinian fitness merely means the number of viable children you can ensure reach adulthood. If the “feeble-minded” really did out-reproduce, then they were more fit.

    Similarly, I’m not sure how you could argue, in terms of genetics, a Neanderthal should be sterilized to prevent interbreeding. First, they already interbred with “us” once. Second, as Razib noted, the vast majority of their genome would be culled from the Neanderthal portions of our own DNA. I have a feeling this would need to be patched a bit with reconstructed fossil DNA as well – I can’t imagine that 100% of Neanderthal genes survived, when non-Africans only share around 2%-4% of their genes, and some appear to have been highly selected for. If the reconstructed Neanderthal’s genome combination was a selective advantage, I don’t see any reason why we should’t stop it spreading far and wide.

    Regardless, I presume muhr was arguing for special treatment of Neanderthals due to their “not being human” – and he wouldn’t advocate for sterilizing human beings. Attitudes like his are probably the best argument in these comments for why we shouldn’t resurrect the subspecies. I think it’s fine to create experimental humans through genetic engineering, provided it’s understood that, once they are born, they are humans with the same human rights as the rest of us, including the right to refuse to participate further study if they so wish.

    A related question to the skeptics. Consider Tasmanians. They were completely extinguished as a full-blooded people culture in the 19th century. Virtually nothing remains of their history, language or culture. However, a mixed-race community exists at least on Bass Island, and possibly on other nearby islands as well. It would be far easier to reconstruct the Tasmanian aborigines than Neanderthals, as the admixture is recent enough that most of the genome of the aboriginal ancestors is probably still in existence. Would this be ethical?

  48. vnv

    More optimistically, what if Neandertals lacked social intelligence, but exhibited very strong aptitudes in the visuo-spatial sciences?

    So we’d have just gone and made us some more mathematicians and theoretical physicists?

  49. William Sears

    For some reason this reminds me of a short story by A. E. van Vogt.

    Neanderthals with cat eyes will take over the world!

  50. #47, great comment! i’m less concerned about the paralogy issue than the chromatin. though from what i recall neandertals are 3 X as far from modern humans as khoisan are from other humans.

  51. Prof.Pedant

    #48: Tasmanians.

    I can easily imagine that once it become possible for parents to select which chromosomes a child will inherit (and more so when we can individually select genes) that some of the ‘mixed-race’ Tasmanians may possibly purposefully select the chromosomes with the most ‘Tasmanian’ admixture in them. I can imagine some similar decision-making happening in some American Indians from the United States.

    Other parents may want to make sure that their children are as as admixed as possible (as in the differences between the ancient mixed population in Central Asia (name?) and American Blacks) to ensure that they are a ‘true blend of their parent’s love!’, or perhaps that they inherit specific traits from each parent. And some parents will want their children to inherit the most unique genes that each of them have, which might lead to some interesting changes in gene frequencies.

    In any case, as long as the children grow up in loving homes the way that all children should, such tampering would certainly be ethical…..if for no other reason than that the parents are already making decisions about their child’s future just by the fact that they have a child – picking chromosomes or genes is merely fine-tuning.

  52. DK

    you could cut and paste those Denisovan mutations into a modern human genome

    No, you couldn’t. Few of them – sure. But not all of them. Not with the current technology or any technology envisioned today.

  53. Ben

    Would a Denisovan or a Neanderthal *legally* be a human being? Because if so, it’s hard to imagine a medical ethics board approving this (in the West, anyway).

    And if they’re not legally human, you’d have created an individual with a human (or almost human) capacity to suffer, but no rights. Which might actually be useful for certain evil military/slave labour applications… Imagine Neanderthal shock troops who can’t be tried for war crimes.

  54. Xarcht

    We Homo Sapians Sapians are terrible at sharing. When we showed up all the other groups of homids went away. Lets learn from history first before we kill them off a second time.

  55. Paul

    If one created a series of individuals, with progressively more neandertal genes, at what point would they be considered non-human, if ever? What if each of the genes can be found in some living human?

  56. Raimo Kangasniemi

    I personally see no problem in cloning Neanderthals. Certainly we can’t resurrect their culture, but I wouldn’t see any point in doing so anyway. The Neanderthals were a species that could, we have to assume, stand separate of their culture of circa 35 000 BCE and survive like Homo sapiens can survive after having moved on from the culture of the Cro-Magnons.

    If we could resurrect the Neanderthals as a species through cloning, I think that we should do it and raise the clones as members of modern human society, instead of trying to force them to be relics. If there would be limits to their ability to be part of modern human society, then special arrangements should be made and perhaps eventually a new Neanderthal culture could emerge.

    Personally, I think that member of any species of the genus Homo would be legally human. The similarity with Homo sapiens would be too great to deny the status of humans to them. Australopithecines might be tricky, but not Neanderthals.

  57. muhr

    I should have worded it better, I wasn’t advocating cloning neandertals infertile. I was wondering about what a future society that cloned neandertals would be thinking considering that moderns and neandertals have bred and are interfertile. If they didn’t want hybrids then they would clone them infertile.

    I’d like to think a cloned neandertal could live a life within the normal range of moderns, but there a number of circumstances in which they could be cloned, some good and some bad.

    All I’m certain of is that if a neandertal is cloned a modern will be having sex with one.

  58. Ria

    The practical aspects of primate cloning are very complicated. Non-human primate cloning has thus far not been very successful, and it has been tried, at least for macaques (published data on the extremely low success rates for somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), or cloning, in non-human primates–see Okahara-Narita, et al (2007)). Human cloning has apparently been even less successful, but I’ve read up much less on that topic. Primates are also remarkably resistant to the transgenic techniques that are commonly used in other mammalian animal model species. That’s not directly relevant, but it does speak to the fact that what works in mice (ie: transgenics, easy knock-outs/knock-ins, SCNT, etc) and other mammals may be much more challenging in primate species, and particularly in the ape lineage. The few non-human primates that have had success with SCNT and/or transgenics have been relatively removed from humans in the primate lineage (ie: marmosets with transgenic efforts, cynomologous macaques with NT related technologies, albeit at low success rates for both)…ie: they are not apes. I completely agree with comment #47. I don’t think that cloning humans will happen any time soon, and moving forward to try to clone an ancient extinct species is much farther. Another aspect to using complete gametes that I’d like to bring up is one that cell biologists would assert: not only the nucleosomal proteins involved in chromatin remodeling (which are arguably the most critical), but also the protein composition of the oocyte itself that would play a critical role in successful conception, and the transition from the oocyte-supplied resources to blastocyst-derived proteins. The composition of these proteins does differ between species. How important that is for successful development, however, would require a series of experiments that I doubt anyone would be willing to do using primate oocytes with other-species DNA (or primate DNA with alternative species oocytes) at this time. I’m curious if anyone knows if such experiments have already been done. I’m unaware of any.

    An argument can be made that Neanderthal and human are so close as to make no difference in this respect, but I think that’s an assumption that we don’t know enough to be able to make. There have been some significant population dynamic changes that have affected our genomes since Neanderthal and humans interbred (population-specific, of course), so I don’t know what effect those may have had upon the ability of a mostly Neanderthal genome to successfully develop from a human fertilized oocyte. It would depend in part on how successful the breeding efforts were originally between Neanderthal and human, I would think. Was it easy for cross-breeding to occur? The proportion of our genomes suggest that it may have been, but there are other explanations rather than ease of cross-breeding that could explain the proportion of Neanderthal genome that remains in the modern human genome.

    All of this doesn’t address the draft quality Neanderthal genome that we have available to work with at this time. I’d be leery of cloning any ancient species without more samples from which to compare and try to parse out the most complete picture of the genome. Svante Paabo did an amazing job, obviously, and the best job to date on ancient DNA, but there’s only so much that one can do with ancient DNA. The damage can cause some really significant problems in sequence interpretation, and there are some rather large gaps that could be very significant for the species. We also know very little about duplications, which can be a very significant issue, particularly relevant for GPCRs and thus sensory perception. If we did try to clone a Neanderthal at this point, we’d wind up merely with a hybrid that was a bit closer to what we THINK a Neanderthal is than we are, but that’s the best we could hope for, biologically.

  59. Richard Aubrey

    So what do you do with a Neanderthal, once he or she has reached, say, six years old?

    Decades ago, Heinlein wrote a plausible short about a genetically modified chimp of a kind used for scut labor being legally declared a man. The court proceedings were frighteningly logical and, in today’s society, probably inevitable. After all, we’ve called him H. Neanderthal. See, “H”. Man. Hardly necessary to provide any more evidence.

    We are told that Neanderthals, at least the men, were probably more violent than H. Sap. The deduction has to do with finger-length ratios as proxies for testosterone levels. H. Neander are, according to anatomists’ assertions, hugely powerful, short, with short limbs. In judo and wrestling, short and stocky is a bitch to fight. How would things go on the playground?

    If he’s a “man”, you can’t keep him in a cage, even if the grant includes lifetime financial support.

    He’s not likely to be comfortable or competent in today’s society, it being designed by his successor after, say, forty thousand years, since he and his kind had two hundred thousand years or whatever it is and got more or less nowhere.

    If you clone the guy and then have to institutionalize him, that’s about as vile as can be. The supermax prisons drive prisoners mad due to confinement and isolation, yet they are necessary in some cases to protect the guards and other prisoners. And in this supposed case, what did he do wrong?

    Prisons are full of guys with overaggressive tendencies whose physical capacities allow them to do great damage to others. And so they have. Seems a bad idea to bring a sentient being into a situation where this is his likely end when we don’t have to.

    Other than some guys who are too salty about their ability with the test tubes and have no further thought, I can’t see a single reason for this.

    Morally reprehensible.

    And what for? A freak show?

    Richard Aubrey

    ReplyReply AllMove…InboxAOL_MailSaved_on_AOL

  60. Syon

    Karl Zimmerman:”I’m aware of the history of sterilization during the “progressive” era, including in the U.S. That said, those days are behind us, and that type of eugenics is viewed with horror by even the majority of genetic determinists today.”

    One never knows how the future will see things.Beliefs are not frozen in frozen in place.I can easily see the pendulum swinging the other on sterilization in the future.

  61. Nyk

    I would be concerned about the Neanderthal’s predisposition towards violence, which could pose a danger to society at large. A hunter-gatherer is quite likely to be more violent than a descendant of farmers and shepherds.

    A ‘vibrant’ community of violent Neanderthals living in the midst of weak, domesticated sapiens may be the last thing that is needed. I don’t even want to think about the accusations of racism coming from liberals, that only my fellow sapiens will have to endure, in spite of their physical weaknesses.

  62. Syon

    Urk. That should read:

    One never knows how the future will see things.Beliefs are not frozen in place.I can easily see the pendulum swinging the other way on sterilization in the future.

  63. DK


    It’s not cloning that is a main barrier (although it is a formidable one). It’s that the replacement in the genome are done by homologous recombination – which isn’t very efficient in mammals and takes long time and low frequency to select for. So when the task is to make 20,000 mutations, the existing techniques cannot offer anything realistic.

  64. Jason Malloy

    These creatures lived in the past in their own environments, in their own social groups.

    That’s why we should clone not just one, but whole groups of Neanderthals. And then give them some living space in Alaska, where they can hunt moose, and nice, Jane Goodall-like ladies can study them.

    Then after a few generations we can clone some Cro-Mags and send them in and see what happens.

  65. Richard Aubrey

    Jason. No need for cloning C-M. I played lacrosse. We’re already here.

  66. Ria

    #64, We are, after all, discussing cloning, so I’m not sure how discussing the feasibility of actually accomplishing the cloning fails to be “the main barrier”. If the process of cloning doesn’t work in primates (or with unacceptably low success rates, particularly given the cost of obtaining human oocytes) with current technology, the whole discussion is moot from a practical perspective (although an interesting thought project). Even if we had appropriate means to incorporate the mutations (which would be likely to much more than 20,000, by the way, as you aren’t just talking about nonsynonymous mutations that would be relevant, you’d need to include all of the noncoding changes (intergenic and intronic, as both are relevant) as well that may play a role in adjusting gene expression). Transgenic methods would then be relevant to exchange broader swaths of DNA, if we could get any of them to work reliably enough using ancient DNA, which is yet another issue. There would need to be incorporated markers (eGFP, for example), putative incorporation site mutations, etc, depending on the transgenic methodology that turned out to be viable in humans, which at this point is unknown, but likely to be retroviral-based. We know the transgenic methods that worked in marmosets and recently in rhesus macaques, but those same retroviral methods present a high probability for random insertion into the target genome….and there would need to be concomitant removal of the human DNA for the target ancient DNA region as well. None of this addresses the issue of genome duplications and genomic structure that may play a role in native Neanderthal development, but may be missing in humans (and would not have been detectable in the genome sequencing…they would have collapsed, as mate pair libraries cannot be constructed from ancient DNA to my knowledge…and fragment libraries are difficult to obtain structure information off of). Put simply, we just don’t know enough about the actual Neanderthal genome yet to try to reconstruct it, especially in the context of a cloned living individual. That’s why it’s called a “draft” genome.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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